Haast is now a world heritage site. Situated on the western edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, UNESCO has compared it to the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef as a significant natural treasure. I’m not taking issue with UNESCO, but we’ve been to both these Natural Wonders and Haast isn’t in that league.
That’s not to say it isn’t fabulous, because it is. A number of small settlements are linked together under the Haast umbrella: Haast township and Haast Beach, Okuru, Hannahs Clearing, Neils Beach and Jackson Bay. There’s about fifty miles separating Haast Town from Jackson Bay, a huge tract of land with a great variety of things to see. We liked it so much we stayed for several days, parking up on deserted beaches or tranquil inland settings at night.
Magical. Haast Beach was pretty busy and great fun and we took the opportunity to travel along the (not busy at all) coast, returning to our ‘base’ at night. Everywhere we go around here people keep telling us there are little blue, some other sort of penguins fur seals and dolphins ‘everywhere.’ We haven’t even seen one.
What we had seen lots of was baches. I don’t know the exact spelling of the word, but a ‘bach’ is a New Zealand phenomenon and we love them. My impression was they were originally ‘bachelor pads’ - spartan, extremely basic ‘second home’ shacks erected on sea shores, by lakes or in the wilderness and intended as retreats for single men to get away and do a bit of fishing or sailing in their free time. There are many of the ramshackle persuasion, but they’re nowadays more of a middle class lifestyle option, often rented out for holidays.
Neils Beach was once a fishing village, but now it’s basically a site for baches, some of them fitting the shabby chic genre to perfection. Of course, not for the first time, on mentioning how much we liked their bach the owners had been quick to point out our ignorance.
‘It’s a crib, mate. You’re not in North Island now.’
Yes, it is confusing. In North island, they say bach but in South Island, it's a crib. Same difference, but we readily acknowledged our error.
We’d already been ‘outed’ as foreigners by mentioning the flip-flops Marigold was wearing on her feet being no longer fit for purpose. We’d committed the same crime in Australia where those basic items of footwear are called ‘thongs.’ In New Zealand, as we now know, we should have been saying ‘jandals.‘
Isn’t the world of footwear complicated? My personal favourite – yes I now usually make a point of asking what the locals call them – Is Klip klappere in Denmark. So wonderfully onomatopoeic.
Jackson Bay is where the road ends. As good a reason as any for making it a must see destination. Between Neils Beach and Jackson Bay we came across the Arawhata Pioneer Cemetary, the last resting place of many of the first Europeans to reach the lonely outpost of Jackson Bay. As with so many graveyards it spoke of crushed dreams and shattered lives in this harsh environment.
I’ve written previously of our fascination with gravestones and this was one of the most memorable. We also came across a single grave of one of the first settlers on the shore. I can only remember his first name was Claude and he died very young.
We had a fabulous meal on the Esplanade at The Craypot, best described as a ‘pop up restaurant’ as it started life as a pie cart and that’s still how the locals referred to it. It started life many miles inland in its previous format and was towed here through the mountains by tractor. A great back story and good food, especially the seafood so it was perfect for Marigold.
The only downside of this area had been the aforementioned sandflies. I haven’t worn socks, long trousers or long sleeved shirts for many months while on tour and as a result had been eaten alive in this area by the almost invisible enemy. Marigold seems rather less prone to their attack.
Not for the first time I cursed my excessive attractiveness.
I tried insect repellent which is certainly repellent, but sandflies seemed to like it and I ended up asking a half naked* woman selling bottled water what was her secret for deterring the wretched insects.
‘Born and raised here,’ she said. ‘Your body grows a second skin after a few years. They’ve really got you, haven’t they?’
Yes, they certainly had. It’s discriminatory, isn’t it, only picking on tourists to provide a meal?’
*Please note, I wrote ‘half naked’ water seller, not ‘attractive’ or ‘young’ half naked water seller. The born and raised local’s appearance would have been vastly improved by more clothing. Had to admire her ‘in yer face’ attitude though.
We also ventured inland into the Lost World setting of the Mount Aspiring National Park. Our destination was, as ever, ‘up in the air,’ but at our first stop we got talking to a group of four students who were travelling the route in the opposite direction and had set off from Queenstown. We learnt a couple of new expressions – a university student is a ‘scarfie’ – as they habitually wear bright coloured university scarves as a ‘scarfie uniform’ – and the place where we were chatting was ‘in the wop-wops,’ meaning an out of the way spot in the middle of nowhere. Marigold loved that one, she still says it even now.
We took a spur of the moment decision to press on as far as Lake Wanaka rather than dawdling along and stopping at every viewpoint as we hadn’t come across any alternative options for spending the night The road leading us there had many of the ‘wow’ moments we were becoming accustomed to by now.
Waterfalls, oh yes, lots of waterfalls, some with wonderfully explicit names such as Roaring Billy plus vast areas of stunning natural beauty. Roaring Billy and Crikey Creek, such great names and I photographed three separate signs on bridges crossing Roaring Swine Creek.
We often had to park up and hike through forest trails, but that was no hardship as the weather was beautiful. We’d been climbing steadily from the coast and I can’t imagine this road being so easy to drive along in winter with snow falling. Makarora is only a very small town, but we were glad to have found a good campsite there where we could have a shower and make yet more running repairs to the camper van.
Typically, it ran perfectly in built up areas, but the minute we entered the wop-wops...
I fixed the problem, with help from two women who were not only far better than me at solving mechanical problems, but also gave Marigold and I a haircut when we’d finished the job. They were camping, in a tent that had seen better days, and riding ‘two up’ on a vintage motorcycle.
They had both been working ‘across the ditch’ in Australia as exotic dancers in strip clubs and had managed to save enough money to buy a night club of their own in Queenstown.
‘Come and see us, we’ll be all set up in a couple of weeks,’ they said.
Night clubs and exotic dancers in decadent Queenstown! I just lusted after their motorbike.
We shared a barbecue with the dancing car mechanics and had another laughter filled evening. After quite a few beers had mysteriously vanished from the crate the conversation turned to the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle species on Earth.
We must have looked baffled but it transpired our chances of seeing this phenomenon were remote as it had been extinct for hundreds of years, but the association with Haast still remains. Their descriptions sounded extremely unlikely to us and we assumed it was the beer talking.
Much later I looked up the Haast Eagle. It had an eight foot wingspan and preyed mostly on moa, like the ostrich huge birds far too heavy to fly and weighing up to twenty stones or even more in adulthood. The Haast Eagle became extinct after the moa were themselves hunted to extinction by the newly arrived Maori tribes. That’ll teach me to doubt the word of exotic dancers.
They also told us to go and visit the blue pools but resist the temptation to swim there as the water was freezing. Next morning the exotic dancers left early; waking us and everybody else in the vicinity when their bike roared off.
We went to see the Blue Pools, not far away, which is a river and not really pools as such but the water was certainly very blue indeed. A few more swing bridges as well. By now we were skipping across them with barely a thought of the possible consequences. Maybe we were cured.
Lake Wanaka is big. Really big. Twice the size of Loch Ness and deeper too. But no monsters. Unless they were very shy monsters.
‘You must go and see the tree,’ someone on the camp site said to Marigold on the previous night when she told them we were going to Lake Wanaka, ‘it’s famous.’
‘Oh, right, whereabouts is it?’
‘No idea, but everybody says it’s worth seeing.’
Not very helpful. The lake is longer than the width of the English Channel. We used to live in Folkestone and on a clear day we could see the French coast from the Lees promenade, but there was no chance of seeing the far end of this lake.
Of course we could have asked a local the whereabouts of the tree , but where’s the fun in that?
We walked left, (when there’s a choice turn left is not exactly a rule in our household, but it’s certainly a common response) and pretty soon, there it was. This must be the most photographed tree in the country.
‘You’ve taken a photograph of a tree in a lake,’ Marigold said. ‘Can we go back now?’
She’d developed a blister on her heel and even a spectacularly photogenic tree in a lake wasn’t compensating for the prospect of yet more walking today. We walked/hobbled back to the van.
Who knows what we missed by not circumnavigating the lake, now we’ll never know. We could have managed it inside 24 hours with ease!
Many years later we took a photo of the Lone Cypress, a solitary tree on a headland alongside Pebble Beach golf course in California. It’s an iconic tree and much photographed.
‘It’s almost a compulsion with you,’ Marigold said. ‘First that tree in New Zealand and now this. Is it a tree fetish?’
Two ‘tree photos,’ with a ten year interval between? No, I’m not worried about arboreal fixation syndrome.
Onward, ever onward, this time to Queenstown. We’d originally intended to explore the whole of the coast first, but after heading inland we were well on the way to Queenstown anyway and retracing our steps to the west coast wouldn’t be a hardship on such a scenic route. Still to come after Queenstown there’s the magic of Milford Sound and The Southland from Invercargill to Dunedin via an area we loved perhaps more than any other: The Catlins. All of that in the next blog post and there’s still so much more after that. For now though, enough!!